Thursday, July 16, 2015

NJ Transit, Trains, and TOD

In this Automobile Age, public transportation continues to feel the sting of being second banana. NJ Transit’s fares are scheduled to increase by 9 percent this fall.

This increase won’t affect suburban car commuters who don’t use the system. It’s indicative of the lack of desire on the part of politicians to raise the gas tax which funds different modes of transportation. New Jersey has some of the cheapest gas in the nation as well being one of two states where you are not allowed to pump your own gas (the other is Oregon fyi).

For those unfamiliar with the subject, New Jersey does do well when compared to other states in terms of public transportation usage. Being in the heart of the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak runs from Boston to Washington helps. NJ Transit, PATH, and Patco subway lines, and a strong light rail system go a long way too. But that’s a low standard compared to other industrialized nations and a state that has a population comparable to states three times its size.

The system is designed to bring passengers from the outskirts to Newark, Hoboken, Secaucus, and ultimately New York City. There are seven different rail lines in NJ Transit and transferring among them is difficult. You have to transfer trains at one of the few stations served by both lines and then ride that line down to where you want to go. This is can be quite time consuming.

NJ Transit map
A map of the NJ Transit system
Increasing fares is unlikely to increase ridership. The train cars themselves vary in quality depending on when they were built. Some contain two levels of spacious seats while others have old benches that force passengers to squeeze together during rush hour.

The quality of the area around the stations varies greatly. The older, urban stations are in the heart of their respective communities and it would be fairly easy to reach them without driving. This would be the epitome of Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

What’s TOD?

TOD has a great number of benefits. It encourages walking and bike riding which promote health in a way that does not to be scheduled or fretted over. This is especially significant, given my concerns about health. Midtown Manhattan would be a great example of natural TOD.

Fewer cars on the road improves the quality of the air. Shops in TOD neighborhoods benefit from the foot traffic. Since less space is used, it allows for the preservation of undeveloped land. Traffic congestion would also be decreased since more people are taking a train which in turn improves air quality.

Metropark train station
Metropark station and the surrounding area in 
Woodbridge Township
However, many of the suburban stations on NJ Transit, which constitute the majority, were not built with TOD in mind, in part since these principles were only popularized in the last 20 years or so. In Woodbridge Township, NJ, a community of nearly 100,000, you have three stations, Woodbridge, Avenel, and Metropark. The Woodbridge station is on the main street of the township close to city hall along with different shops and would a great example of TOD.

Metropark in contrast is not. It is set next to an office park where the buildings are inconvenient in relation to each other as well as the station, thus demanding the use of a car. There are no shops that consumer could visit on the weekend either.

While Avenel would not have been a good example of TOD in the past, the neighborhood is being redeveloped in order to take advantage of the train station, with apartments being built on the site of a previously vacate warehouse. This is a great step in the right direction. Hopefully we’ll see more of the same along with affordable transit in the near future!